Gray, Rox want a deal ... it's not that simple

Right-hander a rare Colorado pitcher on free agent market

November 7th, 2021

DENVER -- Right-hander said helping the Rockies find success would be “more rewarding” than doing so anywhere else, given the difficulty of pitching at Coors Field -- something Gray has done quite well since his debut in 2015.

But because he and the Rockies have been unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension thus far, Gray, who turns 30 on Friday, is about to test the free agency waters for the first time. Joining him as a free agent will be , and .

The Rockies are expected to lose Story, although they granted him a qualifying offer (worth $18.4 million for 2022) knowing they receive a compensatory pick if the shortstop signs elsewhere. As for Chacín, the value of his experience points toward the Rockies trying hard to re-sign the right-handed reliever. The Rockies also would like to keep Owings, who has made the team as a non-roster invitee the last two seasons but has then seen each campaign cut short by injury.

The Gray situation is more difficult to handicap.

All of this does not mean an automatic departure. After publicly stating his desire to play under a multiyear deal, Gray was not dealt at the Trade Deadline. That’s because contending clubs knew there was a good chance he would be a two-month rental.

Retaining a pitcher like Gray, who manager Bud Black described as in the “top third” of all Major League starters, would only bolster those chances.

It may also be easier than trying to land another starter from outside the organization -- either via free agency or trade -- this offseason. The Rockies’ track record in such pursuits previously have often not panned out.

It’s an interesting dance. The player says he wants to stay; the team says it wants him. But Gray is also in a unique position in Rockies history.

Before him, starters who established themselves with the Rockies mostly fell into one of two categories: They either signed multi-year contracts that covered free agency years (Ubaldo Jiménez, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela are examples), or they were traded/released before reaching free agency (examples included Jamey Wright, Shawn Chacon, Jason Jennings and Chacín, during his first go-round with the club). Tyler Chatwood was the rare exception; he reached free agency and the Rockies didn't participate in the bidding.

General manager Bill Schmidt declined to comment on a recent report in The Athletic that the club has offered Gray a three- to four-year contract worth $35-$40 million. However, he did acknowledge that the Rockies were "discussing" extending Gray the 2022 qualifying offer, before ultimately declining to make that $18.4 million proposal.

And it’s tough to calculate how an accomplished Rockies starter might be valued on the open market with the Rockies as active bidders. Gray and his representatives have a chance to find out.

Since 2016, Gray’s first full season, he ranks among the top 15 National League pitchers in innings pitched (788 1/3), strikeouts (809) and wins (53), and among the top 25 in fielding independent pitching (3.91) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.04). His ERA-plus during that stretch is 108, above the MLB average of 100.

None of this puts Gray, the No. 3 overall MLB Draft pick in 2013, at star status, although he and the club took their shot with Opening Day starts in ’17 and ’18, and a start in the ’17 National League Wild Card Game at Arizona. But it has made him a solid rotation member.

“To have success over six months you need strong cogs,” Black said. “You need that talent to show up every fifth day, and Jon has done that for the most part. He’s shown up with talent and desire to win, and been a good Rockies [representative] on and off the field.”

Gray also believes that “pitching well at home adds value.” He ranks second in franchise history with 415 strikeouts at Coors Field, and his .257 batting average against is third among Rockies pitchers with at least 40 home starts. His .633 home winning percentage trails only Jorge De La Rosa (.726) and Senzatela (.667). Those are impressive numbers at a park that sometimes leads more accomplished pitchers to reinvention, followed by relief when they exit.

Gray’s overall performance in 2021 was solid (4.59 ERA in 29 starts), though at times, he fell into ruts with his delivery. He also dealt with right forearm soreness, which led to two 10-day injured list stints and affected his performance.

But as was the case last winter, when he added acupuncture to his routine and solved shoulder troubles, Gray believes he has some solid ideas on how to address the forearm issues. Being back on a normal baseball schedule after going from an abbreviated ’20 season to a full season in 2021 will help, he believes.

“There is a lot of form stuff I can work on, and mechanics have a lot to do with it,” he said. “Maybe I can gain a few mph on my fastball, too.

“I feel like I can do more -- there are some boxes that are unchecked. I’ve always wanted to be a 200-inning guy, and I’ve never really been close. I’ve had some bumps in the road, a few injuries. I think I know how to fix the way I get sore, but there is a better way for my body to work.”

But will Gray be working on his career goals in Purple Pinstripes, or some other colors? As the 2021 season ended, Gray contemplated the uncertainty.

“Like, warming up, I’d think, ‘This is one of the last times I do it here,’” Gray said. “So sometimes I’d take in the view, the scenery, something around the ballpark, even though it’s not like I’ll never be here again. Being in this spot is something that I want, but we will see.”